Wednesday, June 10, 2009

The Taliban: if you’re not beating them, you’re losing

In late March, Barack Obama made his long-awaited speech on Afghanistan in which he framed what could be termed as the point of the war: to disrupt, dismantle, and defeat al Qa’eda in Pakistan and Afghanistan and to prevent their return to either country in the future.

He announced an increase of 17,000 combat troops to reinforce the roughly 60,000 Nato soldiers in Afghanistan, and an additional 4,000 to train the Afghan security forces. He called for a greater commitment from donor nations and Nato member states, for Pakistan to eliminate safe havens for Taliban militants along the country’s porous border with Afghanistan, and for an end to corruption in the Afghan government and greater oversight on reconstruction projects. In doing so, he hit all the right notes, but failed to address fully how the United States planned to accomplish this monumental task. One of the possible answers has just been provided by the Center for New American Security (CNAS), a new Washington-based think tank staffed by some of the foremost authorities on counterinsurgency.

That the Obama administration will pay close attention to the recommendations of CNAS is without doubt. Two of the report’s authors, David Kilcullen and Nathaniel Fick, helped General David Petraeus to write the US army’s new counterinsurgency field manual, as did the group’s president, John Nagl.

The report, entitled Triage: The next twelve months in Afghanistan and Pakistan, paints a dire picture of the state of the war. Civilian casualties are rising (up 41 per cent from 2007), as are the number of attacks (550 a day in 2007 compared with 50 per day in 2002). The Taliban now operate in three quarters of Afghanistan’s 400 districts, up from half last year. Meanwhile approval ratings for the Afghan government have plummeted from 80 per cent in 2005, after the last elections, to 49 per cent (little wonder when the country is 176th on Transparency International’s list of the world’s 180 most corrupt countries). The report’s authors observe: “In counterinsurgency campaigns, if you are not winning, then you are losing.” By all possible measures, the US and its allies are most certainly not winning.

The purported intent of the report is not to reverse these trends but to stabilise the losses. As the title suggests, the authors advise that the US prioritise its goals over the next year to avoid losing any more ground to the Taliban and provide a stable platform for the upcoming Afghan elections. In Afghanistan this means focusing on securing as much of the population as possible, with the implication that there will be portions of the country conceded to the Taliban: the report goes so far as to suggest one particular area, the Korengal valley, dubbed the Valley of Death by American troops, sparsely populated but the site of near constant fighting.

The report argues that the potential Taliban propaganda victory of a troop withdrawal is outweighed by the disproportionate cost of securing the area. This recommendation is undeniably harsh, since it means abandoning Afghans, even temporarily, to the Taliban. But, ultimately, an end to the fighting will probably result in an immediate improved quality of life for those people, albeit under the eyes of an oppressive Taliban leadership.

The second recommendation is to take advantage of the so-called civilian surge announced by Mr Obama to impose greater transparency on the Afghan government by embedding experts within the various ministries. With the majority of Afghans feeling little confidence in the central government, efforts must be made to improve its image – not through propaganda but with demonstrable improvements in governance.

As the report argues, the US should not tie these efforts to any particular Afghan administration and should carry on the efforts until and after the presidential elections in August. Accomplishing this will require co-ordination with the US’s often unwilling allies. In particular, talking the Europeans into signing up to this plan will require much persuasion from the Obama administration. Past efforts by European partners, namely the police training programme, have either been sidelined or duplicated by the Americans out of an insufficient commitment from Europe or disagreements over the manner in which the programme is conducted. Nevertheless, the US would be hard pressed to carry out both the military and political aspects of the war on its own, so its allies must step up.

The options for the deteriorating situation in Pakistan are much less clear. The military cannot simply cross the Durand line into the territory of a US ally to eliminate Taliban safe havens in Pakistan’s tribal areas. But there are things the US can stop doing to make the situation “less worse”. For instance, the US air campaign by unmanned drones kills more civilians than militants, even if, as the US contends, the Taliban inflates the number of innocent deaths. Additionally, these strikes are deeply unpopular in Pakistan and decrease popular support for the nation’s involvement in the US’s campaign against the Taliban.

That may be changing. The spread of the Taliban into the Northwest Frontier Province alarmed many Pakistanis, and the nation’s campaign against the militants enjoys widespread support. If for no other reason, the US should halt its air strikes to capitalise on the current anti-Taliban sentiment.

The report’s authors differ slightly on this issue. They see the Pakistani military’s tactics as counterproductive. While they would undoubtedly agree that the Taliban must be ousted from Pakistan, they do not think that the country’s military is up to the task – so much so that they call for an end to US military support for Pakistan, arguing: “Regardless of whether Pakistan’s military is incompetent or in collusion with the Taliban, it makes little sense to continue to devote such a high percentage of US aid to an ineffective force when other options exist.” The other option is the police, and the report argues for greater funding for them.

None of these recommendations is a recipe for defeating the Taliban. Instead they are the first steps on the road to not losing. But the situation in Afghanistan and Pakistan has deteriorated to the point where that is the best the US can hope for in the immediate future.